Watchdog: Successful Interagency Partnerships Built on Trust, Communication

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Interagency goals such as food safety and homeland security are best met when leaders from different federal organizations establish trust and achieve early wins, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

“Low-hanging fruit,” or feasible steps that can be completed short term, have “allowed officials to establish relationships with their counterparts in other agencies and enabled teams to practice working together,” the watchdog found in interviews over the past 14 months with participants from nine agencies on four interagency bodies.

“Officials from the groups reported that achieving early wins, allowed participants to build upon recent experiences, working relationships, improved knowledge of related programs, and team structures that had been established to coordinate group activities,” the report said.

The Feb. 14 report is part of a series required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act in which GAO is examining the extent to which the government’s priority goals are being pursued with clear and measureable outcomes, accountability, collaboration and adequate resources.

GAO interviewed participants in interagency bodies devoted to issues of homelessness, the reentry of former inmates into society, rental housing policy, and the education of military dependent students. Auditors also sought feedback from recipients of the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, who had experience with interagency collaboration, to learn which approaches are most successful.

Successful leaders of interagency working groups, the interviews revealed, exhibit five competencies: they worked well with people, communicated openly with a range of stakeholders, built and maintained relationships, understood other points of view, and set a vision for the group. Participants are more likely to attend meetings and stay involved, auditors found, if leaders have a direct relationship with the president, Congress other high-level officials.

GAO interviewed employees at the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, along with the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

In the long term, “federal agencies will need to work even more closely with other agencies to leverage more limited resources to achieve their missions in the current fiscally constrained environment,” GAO noted.

The interim report included no recommendations.

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